Recently I posted a video about a horrible game experience. In the process of making the video I wrote out a script to help articulate all my thoughts on the game. The script ended up being much longer than what I recorded, so I thought I would post the full script below for those who might be interested in more details about the experience:
Recently I had the worst gaming experience of my gaming career. There were several factors. One, the game did not fulfill the players’ expectations. Two, the player engagement was minimal. And the third part is more personal.
Player Expectation > Actual Experience
So why didn’t the game fulfill the players’ expectations? Well to start, the game description was vague. Going in I knew we would be using the Dread system to play a game in the Changeling world. I had never played Changeling, but enjoy fae in fiction and games so it seemed like it might be fun. My main reason for signing up for the game was to play a game using the Dread mechanics. More on that later. The description mentioned that the game was taking place in a modern world. Again, nothing that I had a problem with. So going into the session I was expecting to play fae in the modern world. To see the mystical and mundane interact.
After the GM gave us a crash course on the mechanics of Dread and the world of Changeling, we moved on to character creation. We had to come up with a dream and our characters would be the embodiment of that dream. As the GM handed out the various roles we had to pick from, he announced that we’d be playing the new hires at a film studio. I had a head-desk moment while Ryan brought up that we both work in film and tv. We joked that it was going to be just like work. Oh, how I wished that had remained a joke.
I purposefully created a character who was not me and had a different role in the company than my day job. It was still an interesting character I could play and relate to, but different enough that I hoped it could help define the separation between player and character. Since the scenario was not going to provide that separation. While a little disappointed, I was still looking forward to dealing with the fantastical in a mundane workplace. Maybe a creature we created for a show would come to life and we’d have to escape it. Nope, nothing like that.
We were tasked with coming up with the next great idea for a show, any idea, any platform. Immediately I was pulled out of the world, because the roles of the characters who were tasked with coming up with a new show did not fit what really happens. The IT person would not be in a creative brainstorming meeting. The next thing I knew, the NPC the GM was playing put my character in charge. I was the marketing person, that individual wouldn’t be in charge, that would be a producer (which we didn’t have). I purposefully picked the marketing role so that I wouldn’t be in charge of everything. Sigh.
When we finally got to the big boss fight of the story. It was not what I expected. One of the heads of the company came in, hated our ideas, and yelled at everyone. So there was no fantastical terror, just workplace abuse. And to make matters worse, the GM was role-playing as the boss. Standing over us, yelling and cursing at us.
This was all made worse because we were sharing a room with two other Dread games. Both those games sounded like they were dealing with paranormal threats instead of workplace stress.
At first I thought I was the only one who felt the session didn’t live up to the expectation. But later I was talking to Ryan and he felt similar and he talked to another player who had actually ran games of Changeling in the Dread system and it was nothing like what we did or was expecting.
So I rightly felt a little cheated during the game. I had taken time out of my con schedule and paid to play a game that was nothing like what I was expecting.
Minimal Player Involvement
Once we finally got to attempting to do things and making pulls from the tower (which took almost 2 hours) the GM pulled our characters aside, one by one. He asked what were were attempting, and then brought them back to the table. The GM would tell the player how many tiles they had to pull. They’d pull the tiles. And then the GM would tell them they succeeded. At no point did the rest of the players know what was going on.
Part of this was that our characters were all sent off to do our separate assignments. So I think the GM was trying to make sure the players didn’t have more knowledge than the characters. But it made for a boring game.
I was not invested in what any other character was doing. There was no investment in whether another character succeeded or if the tower fell because I had no idea what they were accomplishing or what the story was doing.
The few times I knew what a character was trying to do. The GM kept twisting things and adding gratuitous details that were horrific and came out of no where. (I realize I was playing a horror game, but these were common trigger and not your typical
Honestly, I was more invested in the two other games in the room because I could hear what was happening. Looking at those tables, the players were sitting back from the table (to avoid bumping it) but leaning into the action. They were engaged. Looking at our table, we were leaning away from the table and many people kept pulling their phones out while the GM was across the room.
At one point one of the players went to attempt a pull and realized he couldn’t pull the tile out safely and instead he sacrificed his character by pushing the tower over. My understanding of the rules is that if a player pushes over the tower they get to narrate what happens. It’s the one point where the player gets full control and the GM listens. But what actually happened is the GM immediately spoke up and said his character succeeded and he’d get to the details in a bit. About twenty minutes later, the GM got to it and the scene he created was interesting. But it wasn’t the player’s scene, it was the GM’s. The game seemed to be all about telling the GMs story and the players were just along for the ride. We didn’t move the story forward and really felt unnecessary to the game.
My Personal Baggage
The third thing that made this the worst gaming experience is that for me, it was way too close to my real life. I could not separate myself from the character. Prior to the convention I’d had a few rough weeks at work. Nothing bad, but the type of thing that made me glad I was going on vacation and getting a break from my day-to-day life to reset and recharge. So being forced to roleplay my job, not fun.
About 2 hours into the game, I was getting really stressed out and mad that I was in this situation. Ryan leaned over and asked if I was ok, and I told him “no”. I decided I needed to bow out of the game because it was putting me in a really bad mental state. It was throwing all the negative aspects and interactions I’ve had at my job back into my face. At one point I was at the edge of bursting into tears I was so stressed.
So during a brief break, I pulled the GM aside and explained my situation. I said that I’d be happy to wrap up a scene if that would help prevent my leaving from creating a gaping hole in the game. He asked me to pull 2 tiles and said he’d just write my character out. Why he needed me to pull those 2 tiles, I don’t know. And he never explained how that helped or let me tell him what my character would try to do.
Since Ryan was also playing, and I wanted to see how the Dread mechanics worked, I decided to stay and watch. Which the GM was ok with. I was hoping that I’d at least be able to enjoy the story of the game when I wasn’t invested in it. But since no one had any idea what the other characters were doing, it was super boring.
Later in the game, when the GM was yelling at us “in character” Ryan and I almost walked from the room. At that point it wasn’t fun, it felt abusive. It didn’t feel like the NPC was yelling at our characters, it felt like we were being yelled at by the person in charge. Because we were. The GM did stop yelling pretty quickly, whether that’s what he planned to do or he realized he had crossed a line, I’m not sure.
I left that game in a bad mental place. Looking back I should have walked out of the room when I left the game. Even listening to the game was not great. There were a lot of trigger topics being thrown around in our game and the other games in the room as character backstory or as a cheap device for story.
Overall, I don’t think this was the kind of game to run at a convention where you don’t know your players. Cause take away the “film studio” flavor and it could have been any workplace. The situation we were in was something that almost everyone has been in at some point or the other and it’s not fun and there really isn’t a way to “win”. When you boil it down, we were playing characters that had little to no power, up against the person who had all the power over our characters. And it doesn’t help that the in-game dynamics perfectly matched the out-of-game dynamics. The players had no control in that game and we were at the mercy of the GM unless we just got up and walked out.
I did take away two things:
As the GM, ask yourself WHY?
Why are you building that particular game? Why that story? The answer can be as simple as: it will be fun. But it can also be because you know the players and they would get something out of working through a certain scenario in the safety of playing a character. But if your trying for a complex answer to that Why, you should have a good idea who your players are and what they are expecting out of the game.
Take care of yourself
At the end of the day, it’s just a game. If playing puts you in a bad mental state or makes you feel unsafe then speak up or remove yourself.
If you are running a game with strangers, don’t have common trigger topics in your game unless there is a clear disclaimer.